Today is Sunday and I’ve had a lazy day enjoying Sunday lunch with friends at a local pub. Such extravagance would have been unthinkable in my family, for whom eating out was a rare treat (and pubs and drinking frowned upon). Throughout my childhood I can only remember my parents eating out once a year, on their wedding anniversary, always at the same local Indian restaurant. Almost every other night of the year (as I wrote in my previous post), my Mum cooked the family dinner; after I became vegetarian aged 12, that was two dinners, daily. I had no interest in cooking and only reluctantly began to contribute to the task of feeding the family when Mum insisted I learn to cook, aged 16, sending me on a vegetarian cookery course at Richmond adult college. I resented this, not having been expected to help out at home before, and I resented even more the fact that my brothers, older than me, were never expected to contribute (even though Brother 2 loved to cook and was – and is – good at it). We should all, of course, have been helping my selfless and hard-working Mum a lot more.
This was the 1970s. I attended a progressive comprehensive school which had previously been a Secondary Modern and was equipped with impressive kitchens and workshops for needlework, woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. Being bookish, a bit of a dreamer and never very practical, I was equally useless at all of these subjects. Also, the Home Economics teacher was rather nonplussed by me and my friend Sarah’s vegetarianism, which didn’t help us to develop our cooking skills (although Mr Bates, our compassionate and eccentric art teacher, was the first vegan I ever met, who taught us much about animal rights). The cooking course I attended later at Richmond Adult college wasn’t much better. The teacher wasn’t vegetarian herself, and included fish in many of her recipes, telling those of us on the course who actually were vegetarian to substitute a boiled egg instead (just to clarify: a fish is an animal. Vegetarians don’t eat animals). Boiled egg mornay? You can see how this cookery course really didn’t encourage my culinary skills. After I left home aged 18 I ate little, cooked nothing more ambitious than the occasional omelette, and only learned to cook properly out of necessity when I became vegan in my mid-20s.
To return to family life back home: I don’t remember Sunday lunch ever being a big deal in our house. There were no grandparents around for most of my childhood, and we didn’t see my extended family on a regular basis. The only traditional Sunday lunches I remember were at Auntie Margaret’s house. Margaret Press was Mum’s best friend since their school days, who lived on her own just 2 streets away from us. We sometimes had Sunday roasts at her flat on Rectory Road, which were very happy occasions. I don’t remember ever being that keen on the meal itself, in fact even then I was repulsed by those joints of meat with gristle and veins in it, probably lamb. I have never missed meat since I stopped eating it 40 years ago. Pudding, however, was another story.
I did enjoy helping my Mum to make cakes and puddings in the kitchen, and my favourite was always apple crumble. Mum had a recipe book that had come with the super-modern electric cooker my parents bought when they married in 1952. The page with this recipe on it was the most used, stained and torn, and covered in Mum’s handwritten notes. She made so many changes over the years to quantities and ingredients that this recipe is really her own. As a child I loved helping to peel and slice the sour Bramley’s cooking apples (bought in the greengrocers in the high street), and rubbing the margarine and flour between my fingers to make the crumble. The warm sweet smell of it baking would fill the house as we ate the boring main course, and when it was taken out and placed sizzling on the dining table, us three kids would vie for the best bits: the sticky toffee formed by the dark brown sugar melted around the edges. Dark, soft, moist Muscovado sugar was definitely the secret of Mum’s delicious crumble.
This was one of the recipes I copied into my Recipe book, pictured above (which has also featured in earlier posts): a notebook given to me by my best friend Briony, who lived next door, for my 11th birthday. I used it to copy out all my favourite recipes for sweets, cakes and puddings. I was so pleased to discover it amongst all the things in our house, as it meant I still had Mum’s apple crumble recipe. I love to make it for visiting friends and family, and the one pictured here was made with the help of my 11 year old niece, happily crumbling the flour and margarine in her messy fingers just like I used to do. It always goes down well.
Especially the toffee bits.